Every Christian, regardless of what denomination they are a part of will answer both of these questions with a resounding YES.
Sonrise Community Church, a nearby Evangelical church, uses this little ditty in their worship services and has the first part of it plastered on the front of their building:
God is Good all the time. All the time God is Good.
If God is good all the time and God expects human beings to be good, then it seems to me that God should at least as good as the humans he expects to be good.
Is the Christian God as good as good humans?
Do we see a good God in the Bible? One would be hard pressed, after reading the Bible, to conclude that God is good all the time. The Bible does show God doing good, but the Bible also records violent, murderous, capricious acts done by God that no rational person would call good.
Christians will object and say God is not bound by the same standard of goodness as humans. So, God expects humans to live by a standard he is unwilling to keep? God, because he is God, can do whatever he wants even if it means acting in ways that no human would call good?
Humans judge goodness based on actions. Good people DO good things. Good people ACT good. Good people live lives of goodness. Sure, they fail from time to time, but, for the most part, they try to live good lives. Wait a minute, the Christian says, the Bible says all humans are dead in trespasses and sin. According to the Bible, they can’t do good. The only way a person can ever do good is to become a born again/saved Christian. Then the person will have the Holy Spirit living inside them and they will be able to do good.
If goodness is the domain of Christians alone, why is it that so many Christians aren’t good? If God saves and lives inside the Christian, shouldn’t the Christian have the power to always do good? The Christian has free will, someone is sure to say. Yes, God lives inside every Christian, but the Christian has free will and they can choose how they want to live. This kind of thinking necessarily leads to the conclusion that Christians are, in some circumstances, more powerful than God. God can not overcome the Christian’s free will and force them to do good? God then, is not as powerful as Christians claim.
This whole scenario is quite strange; A good God that doesn’t do good because he can do whatever he wants. If God doing what he wants is not an act of goodness, then I must conclude that God does evil. As the stories of the Bible clearly show, the Christian God can act in ways that rational humans would call bad or evil. God requires all humans to be good and he empowers them to be good by living inside of them, yet there are times they are not good. I must conclude that God is stymied by Christian free will and is unable to force them to do good. Is such a powerless God worthy of worship?
I think that the God of the Christian Bible is a myth. No God of goodness, who acts according to a different standard than what he expects humans to follow. There is no God that lives inside of Christians influencing them to do acts of goodness, acts that God himself is not required to do. Good people do good. I have said many times that, fortunately, many Christians are better than the God they worship. Millions of Christians go about their lives every day trying to do good. What they fail to realize is that they are doing good because they are good, not because a God made them good. Theists and non-theists alike do good. Their acts of goodness have nothing to do with a God.
The next time someone does good and you benefit from it, thank the person who did the good. Don’t shoot a prayer to the heavens thanking a not-so-good fictional God for the goodness in your life. Good people do good things, and they are the ones who deserve the praise.
My heart has been hurting a bit these days because I know I have so much inside of me that needs to change. I don’t know how God’s going to work it all out. Things like pride, resentment, and arrogance build up in me, reminding me I’m still so broken.
I have these conversations with God, telling Him I have nothing left that’s any good at all. I probably sound a little like this: “I gave you all I thought you wanted. . . . Wait, what was that? . . . You want everything? Even the worst parts?” I run and hide, sometimes, from the God who made me.
I still wonder about this: Does He really want to see my brokenness? Does He really want to do something with me? Have you ever felt like that?..
I read God’s Word because I know He’s not going to take my excuses for an answer. I know He’s going to keep reassuring me as He did to Jeremiah . . .
“I know you”
“I have still chosen you.”
“I’m the One who made you this way, don’t you think I know how to use you?”
The way he said it made me laugh, but this truth rang clear to me: God is in charge, not me. Yet my itty-bitty human brain seems to think the Maker of the stars needs my permission to work in and through me.
I read God’s Word because I need to be reminded that He wants to use me, even when it doesn’t feel like that could possibly be true…
My initial response was one of sadness. Here’s a bright 14-year-old girl and she has already lost her ability to think rationally. Not only has she surrendered her ability to reason and think, she thinks the Evangelical God talks to her.
Here’s a girl sitting in her bedroom sad over the fact that she is not the person God wants her to be. She is plagued by pride, resentment, and arrogance, knowing that these things are a reminder of how broken she is. Ponder this thought for a moment. Here’s a girl who already thinks she is broken. That’s what the Evangelical teaching on original sin does to a person. It makes them see themselves as broken and in need of repair. And who can repair them? No one but God. This girl has been taught that she is helpless and hopeless without God, unable to do anything on her own.
Does she really have a pride, resentment, and arrogance problem? Only she can answer that, but I suspect that her angst is fueled by the preaching and teaching at her church and her home school education. Minor character flaws are blown up into transgressions against a thrice-holy God. If she really does have a pride, resentment, and arrogance problem, then she need not passively, obediently wait for God to fix her. She is not weak, nor broken, and it is within her power to change her ways. Prideful? Stop! Resentful? Stop! Arrogant? Stop!
Far too many Evangelicals go through life thinking they are helpless, broken people who need God’s help to do anything. This kind of thinking makes them weak and passive, always waiting for God to forgive them, deliver them, show them a better way, or give them strength. Instead of relying on self, they are taught to rely on a non-existent God who supposedly never leaves them or forsakes them and sticks closer to them than a brother. They are reminded that the Bible says:
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5,6)
They are also reminded that Jesus said in John 15:5:
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
Evangelicals are told, You can’t do ANYTHING without Jesus. He is your strength. The very breath you have comes from him. Don’t trust your own reasoning, don’t trust the reason of any mere human. Trust God, lay your life at his feet, and let him direct your life. Remember, Jesus said we are to deny self. We don’t matter. Jesus is the end all. Jesus taught us to pray, God’s will be done on earth as it is heaven. Not our will, but his.
This is why uncounted Evangelicals are waiting for God to change them, correct them, or show them what to do. Marriage problems? Out of work? Health problems? Job problems? Conflict with children, spouse, coworker, neighbor, or friend? Financial trouble? Just wait and let God show you the way. Just wait and God will return your phone call. Just wait and God will use his mighty wonder-working power to conform your life into the image he wants it to be. And while they are waiting, life continues to move forward. Waiting on God becomes an excuse, a way of sidestepping personal responsibility, a way of ignoring character flaws.
Every one of us are responsible for our own behavior. There’s no God fix coming for what ails us. If it is important to us to be good, to treat others with decency and respect, then we will do what’s necessary to make these things happen. I have little patience for the prayers of the helpless. They have been neutered by religious teachings that have robbed them of their will. Taught to deny self, they trust in a deity that has no power to help them. The only person that can change ME is the person staring at me in the mirror.
I am not against waiting, thinking, or meditating before making a decision. Haste is just as bad as passivity. When I need to make a decision or change something in my life, I try to give the matter careful consideration. But, when I act, it is me acting, not some outside source of power. As a humanist, I recognize that the buck stops with me and my fellow Homo sapiens.
Christianity, especially in its fundamentalist expressions, teaches that every human is a sinner in need of redemption. Sin is the problem and Jesus is the solution. From Adam and Eve forward, we humans have faced the consequences of sin. Every problem the human race faces can be reduced to our sin against God. Calvinist. Arminian, Mormon, and Catholic, all agree that the stain of sin has ruined the human race and only the blood of Jesus can wash that stain away.
When asked if some sins are worse than other sins, Christians will likely say no. Sin is sin, in God’s eye, they say, but are they really being honest when they say this? Take David Lane, a political activist and founder of the American Renewal Project. In a recent Charisma interview, Lane stated:
“Sin is sin, whether it is homosexuality, adultery or stealing candy bars at the local 7-Eleven. God gave us the recipe in 2 Chronicles 7:14. We as Christians must understand that. He will forgive us and heal our land, but only if we humble ourselves, pray and turn back to Him. I wholeheartedly believe in prayer, and that’s what it’s going to take. Our only hope is in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
According to Lane, “homosexuality, adultery or stealing candy bars at the local 7-Eleven” are all the same in God’s eye. Really? If that is so, why haven’t I heard of any Christian outrage over adultery or stealing candy bars? I checked out the American Renewal Project website, looking for action alerts, feature articles, or campaigns against the sin of stealing candy bars. I found none.
The truth is, Evangelicals, Mormons, and conservative Catholics, have raised the sin of homosexuality to a sin above all others. In their minds, it is the sin above all sins, the one sin that will destroy the United States and bring the judgment of God. These prophets of God, who seem to be profiting nicely off of America’s sin problem, need to stop with the “sin is sin” schtick. No one is buying it.
Look at the message of the above graphic. When’s the last time you’ve seen a graphic, read an Evangelical news article, or heard a sermon that said: Stealing a Candy Bar is a Perversion! Repent or Burn, You Choose! I suspect your answer is never or not since Sister Judith’s Sunday school class in 1968.
I spent fifty years in the Christian church. As a child and youth, I never heard one sermon about the sin of homosexuality. Not one. In fact it was well into the 1980’s before I started hearing sermons about fags, queers, and sodomites. Why all the sermons and outrage now? Simple. Homosexuals, as a class, want the same civil protections and rights that heterosexuals have. They want equal protection under the law. They want to be treated fairly and justly. Most of all, they want to love who they want, without the government telling them they can’t.
And it is these demands that have Evangelicals, Mormons, and conservative Catholics upset. Why can’t the homos stay in the closet, they screech. Everything was fine, before THOSE PEOPLE wanted the same rights as everyone else, says the local Baptist preacher, forgetting that his ancestors made similar statements when opposing equal rights for blacks. Fearing the gay horde, they express their outrage couched in Bible verses and pronouncements from God, but in doing so they unwittingly expose the homophobia and bigotry that lies just under the surface of much of American conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. The problem isn’t sin; it’s homophobia and bigotry. It’s preachers who are afraid to find out how many of their church members are actually gay or bat from both sides of the plate. It’s evangelists and conference speakers who are afraid that their supporters will find out that they have a man in every city. As scandal after scandal has reminded us, those who roar the loudest against a particular sin are often doing that which they condemn.
The next time some lying Evangelical like David Lane tells you “sin is sin, whether it is homosexuality, adultery or stealing candy bars at the local 7-Eleven”, ask them for proof of their claim. From my seat in the atheist pew, all I see is wild eye homophobia and bigotry and lots of candy bar thieves.
This is the fifteenth installment in the Songs of Sacrilege series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a song that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please leave the name the song in the comment section or send me an email.
Today’s Song of Sacrilege is Sin City by the Genitorturers, an industrial metal band from the United States.
When the tracks are leading home to the limits of hell We’ll yell, life sure is swell! In Sin City In the streets where the servants of silence dwell The visions of the wicked are sure to sell! In Sin City On the quickest strip goin’, cum holy high rollin’ with me Get you cash cup flowin’, cum holy high rollin” with me Let your holy mother blow your fears away Get on your knees and play! In the heat where the Savior of Sodom dwells Join hands with the women who squirm in hell, In Sin City Because the lord has mercy on the women who sell Their pussies to the preachers who burn in hell, In Sin City The Devil’s home for the depraved Where the souls are never saved That’s why the holy rollers say Get on you knees and pray To breathe in Sin City To lie in Sin City Get high in Sin City Let your holy water wash away your shame Cause the judgment day is just another game On your knees and pray!
According to Bryan, Ohio resident L. Jay Nafziger, Satan, the head toker himself, is behind efforts to legalize marijuana in Ohio. Nafziger had this to say in a letter to the editor of the Defiance Crescent-News:
Did legalizing alcohol in the USA make our world a better place to live in? Why not ask one of the thousands who have had a loved one tragically killed by a drunk driver.
Did legalizing abortion make the world a better place to live in? Definitely not for the millions of unborn children who never had the chance to live outside the womb.
Has legalized tobacco smoking made the world a better place to live in? Long before medical science “proved” that cigarette smoke is not good for the smoker or anyone else, good, old-fashioned, outdated, uncommon, common sense could tell a person that drawing smoke of any kind into your lungs over a period of time will probably cause problems.
So who is to say that legalizing pot will make the world a better place to live in? Time and time again, many FDA approved “safe” prescription drugs have been pulled off the market because they were found to be “not so safe” after all.
I will admit that I think it is hypocritical for any government, society or culture to accept and allow alcohol, abortion and tobacco while not allowing marijuana. But then, on the other hand, how about this gateway drug thing? If marijuana is legalized, why not heroin and methamphetamine, and why limit prescription drugs?
Why not get rid of all hypocrisy and judgement and let anyone do anything they want to at anytime as long as they are not “hurting” someone else? And it could all be so good for the economy! Did you just detect my sarcasm?
The greatest evil of all is not alcohol, abortion, tobacco or marijuana, but Satan himself, the father of lies. One of his biggest lies is that we (human beings created in the image of God) can/should disregard the laws (ten commandments) of God (creator of the universe and everything in it) and instead, find happiness and fulfillment in life by “doing our own thing if it feels good, do it.” Then, when we get into trouble and aren’t feeling so good, he (Satan) offers us a short term solution or “fix” like alcohol, abortion, tobacco or marijuana, which can ultimately cause us more pain and dissolution than we had in the beginning.
My new, progressive, updated, upgraded, evolved mindset of 2015 says, “No, do not legalize pot.” Any outdated mindset that keeps another “evil” from being legalized is far better than any updated mindset that says “smoking marijuana is good for you.” How can a person know for sure that they are not being lied to, not by just another human being but by Satan himself?
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. John 3. 17.
Jesus is the way, not cannibas. Jesus is the truth, not cannibas. Jesus is the light, not cannibas.
I think Nofziger’s letter speaks for itself. He asks “did you just detect my sarcasm?” No, but I did detect the signs of a fundamentalist lobotomy.
I have several questions for Nofziger. If God is the creator of everything, who created marijuana? And tobacco? And alcohol? If drinking alcohol is a sin, was Jesus sinning when he drank wine and turned the water into wine? What about the verses in the Bible that suggest giving a sick and dying man alcohol to ease his suffering? If marijuana can ease the suffering of someone, shouldn’t they be permitted to use it?
I did like the last sentence of his letter: Jesus is the way, not cannibas. Jesus is the truth, not cannibas. Jesus is the light, not cannibas. Ignoring the fact that Nofziger misspelled cannabis, I think Christians churches should start an evangelistic campaign that touts the superiority of Jesus to being high on marijuana. Get High on Jesus!
In communities where Christianity dominates the culture, it is often hard to find a counselor/psychologist that is not a Christian. It stands to reason, that in a predominantly Christian culture most counselors would be a Christian. This is not a problem if the counselor is able to compartmentalize their religious beliefs, but many counselors who are a Christian can’t or won’t do this.
When a counselor believes the Bible is an authoritative text and the standard for moral and ethical conduct, it is impossible for them to counsel a person objectively. No matter how much they tell themselves otherwise, sooner or later their religious beliefs will affect the advice they give a person.
Back when I was still an Evangelical pastor, I started taking classes to become a licensed social worker. It wasn’t long before my Bible-based beliefs were conflicting with what I was being taught in class. I asked the dean of the department:
Suppose I am a licensed social worker and I am working for the Department of Human Services. The client is pregnant and is thinking about getting an abortion. Since I am a Christian and I think abortion is morally wrong, would I be able to counsel the woman according to my pro-life beliefs?
The department head made it very clear, based on my religious and moral beliefs, that I would have a hard time working in a secular/state environment. She suggested that I might be able to work for a private, religious service provider, but my religious beliefs would likely preclude me from working in a secular setting.
Of course, this offended me. I thought that I should be able to push my religious beliefs on others, but I now see that the department head gave me sound advice. Evangelical Christians often demand they be permitted to work any job in any profession and not be forced to compartmentalize their beliefs. But, there are some professions where a person’s religious beliefs would preclude them from working in that field because their beliefs would not allow them to provide a client or a customer certain services or goods. (like in a pharmacy)
Many pastors provide counseling services. Here in Ohio, a pastor is not required to have ANY training before counseling someone. The fact that the counseling is done through the church exempts the pastor from any governmental oversight. I knew several pastors who were high school dropouts, with no theological or counseling training, that regularly counseled people. In the twenty-five years I pastored churches, I never had one person ask me if I was qualified to be a counselor.
Many pastors don’t think they need specialized training to counsel people. After all, the Bible has the answer to every question and problem. All the pastor needs to do is figure out what the problem is and find the appropriate Bible verse that addresses the problem. Every problem is reduced to obedience/disobedience, sin/righteousness, God/Satan, flesh/spirit. These kind of pastors are very dangerous because they give simplistic answers for complex problems.
Before seeing a pastor for counseling, a person should ask about their training and qualifications. Even if a pastor has college-level training, the value and extent of that training depends on where they got the training. Many Evangelical colleges have counseling programs that are little more than programs that teach pastors how to proof-text any problem. Many Evangelical colleges teach some form of nouthetic counseling:
Nouthetic counseling (Greek: noutheteo, to admonish) is a form of pastoral counseling that holds that counseling should be based solely upon the Bible and focused upon sin. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, radically secular and fundamentally opposed to Christianity. Its viewpoint was originally articulated by Jay E. Adams, in Competent to Counsel (1970) and further books, and has led to the formation of a number of organizations and seminary courses promoting it. The viewpoint is opposed to those seeking to synthesize Christianity with secular psychological thought, but has failed to win them over to a purely Biblical approach. Since 1993, the movement has renamed itself Biblical counseling to emphasize its central emphasis on the Bible. The Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling states that “The aim of Nouthetic Counseling is to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.”
Some Evangelical pastors go so far as to say that mental illness is the result of demonic oppression or possession. Again, the Bible becomes the solution to whatever problem a person may be having. Whether the person’s problem is due to sin or a demon, God and the Bible are always the cure for whatever ails the person. This approach rarely addresses the core issues and, in some cases, can lead to more problems and even suicide.
Imagine for a moment, an Evangelical woman going to her pastor for help. He listens to her “confession” and then he prescribes whatever Bible verse is appropriate. The woman profusely thanks the pastor and leaves his office determined to put the Word of God into practice. Perhaps this works for a day, a week, or a month, but, sooner or later, the problem returns. She goes back to the pastor and he reminds her of what the Bible says. He tells her that she needs to repent, walk in the spirit, be filled with the spirit, put on the whole armor of God, or withstand the devil. The message is clear. If you are still having a problem it is YOUR FAULT!
I know some pastors will be offended by what I am about to say next, but I need to be clear: Most Evangelical pastors are unqualified to counsel people. They lack the necessary training to competently counsel people and their commitment to the Bible keeps them from being able to help people. It’s one thing if a person has a question about the Bible or is questioning their faith. Certainly, they should seek out their pastor’s counsel on spiritual matters. However, many so-called “spiritual” problems are mental/physical/emotional problems dressed up in religious garb. An untrained pastor has no business counseling people who have mental/physical/emotional problems.
Sadly, many people think that pastors are experts on everything. Little do they know that many pastors aren’t even an expert on the Bible let alone anything else. Many Evangelical colleges have turned their pastor-training program into a business and marketing program. Actual training in the fundamentals of the ministry and the Bible are often quite limited. Many pastors-in-training will graduate from college without ever studying most of the books of the Bible. (and OT or NT survey classes don’t count) Many Evangelical pastors-in-training only take one or two of counseling classes. Yet, because the pastor has taken a counseling class, he thinks he is qualified to be a counselor. He may not be a counselor but he did stay at a Holiday Inn. I know several pastors who got counseling degrees from Christian mail order diploma mills. They proudly let everyone know that they have a degree in counseling and are qualified to counsel all comers.
Over the years, I counseled hundreds of people. Not one time did I tell a person that they needed to see a medical professional or a psychologist. I firmly believed the Bible had all the answers. My judgment was further clouded by the fact that my mother was mentally ill, was on all kinds of drugs, was treated by psychiatrists, and attempted suicide numerous times before eventually killing herself at age 54. I considered psychologists and psychiatrists to be enablers who encouraged people to continue in their sin.
In the late 1980’s, I was visiting with a fellow pastor in his office when a severely agitated young man came into the office. The man was either high on drugs or mentally disturbed. I thought my pastor friend would try to calm the man down and offer him some Biblical counsel. Instead, he told the man that he needed medical help. My pastor friend took him to the hospital in Zanesville and dropped him off. I was shocked he did this. When I questioned him, he told me that he was unqualified to help the man. He was the first pastor I ever heard say such a thing. I now know he was right.
I did have two members end up seeking treatment at a stress center. I had tried to help them, and when I couldn’t they had sense enough to seek out competent help. Both of these women stopped going to church after they got out of the stress center. At the time, I saw this as an example of what happens when you go to the “world” for help.
Most of the people I counseled learned to play the game that long-time Evangelicals are expert at playing; they learn to pretend. The Bible, God, praying, confession, and self-denial, are little help to them; they can’t seek help outside the church, so they learn to fake having the “victory.” This leads to living a schizophrenic life. Sadly, the person’s spouse, parent, or children know that their loved one doesn’t have the “victory” because, at home, they can’t or won’t hide their mental health problems. It is one thing to pretend for an hour or two on Sunday; rarely can a person pretend every hour of every day.
I spent most of my adult life playing the pretend game. I struggled with depression, perfectionism, and OCPD, and while I could hide it while at church, it was impossible to hide it at home. My wife and children suffered because I couldn’t get the “victory” over my sin, the flesh, or whatever else the Bible and preachers said I needed to get the “victory” over. I lived this way until 2010 when I finally decided that I needed to see a counselor. Next to marrying Polly, it was the single most important decision I ever made.
The psychologist I see has not “cured” me, but he does help me deal with the depression and the mental and emotional struggles I have as a result of being chronically ill and in constant pain. I consider him to be a lifesaver. He has helped me to embrace my life as it is and he has also helped me come to terms with my religious past. I know that I can talk to him about anything. He listens, and then tries to constructively help me. Sometimes, he listens and says nothing. He knows that sometimes the help I need is just having someone to talk to. He doesn’t view me as a problem that needs fixing and he allows me the space to be my authentic self. If I have learned one thing in counseling, it is who Bruce Gerencser really is. Before this could happen, layer after layer of religious belief and thinking had to be peeled away. At the heart of my difficulties was religion and the Bible and they had to be confronted head on. Even now, as an atheist, my religious past and the beliefs I once held affect how I think and reason. I now realize that the scar of my religious past will always be there. The longer I live without religion and the Bible, the easier it becomes, but these things can, when I least expect it, come to the forefront and cause emotional and mental problems.
I know that some readers of this blog have a similar past and are all too familiar with pastoral counseling and how the Bible is not the answer for whatever ails a person. If you are able to do so, please share your thoughts in the comment section. I know that others will be helped by you sharing your story.
Altar Call, First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana
Every head bowed, every eye closed.
Is God is speaking to you right now?
What is it God wants you to do?
Do you need to be saved? Step out from where you are and come kneel at the altar. Cry out to God. He will save you. Don’t delay. Behold, NOW is the accepted time and NOW is the day of salvation.
Do you need to get right with God? Don’t delay. Don’t wait to another day. Step out from where you are and come kneel at an old-fashioned altar and do business with God.
Whatever it is God wants you to do, do it today.
As we sing the first verse of Just As I Am, you come. Don’t wait. You don’t have the promise of tomorrow.
Over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I gave countless public invitations like the one above. The emphasis might have differed from week to week, but the focus was always on NOW, doing what God wants you to do NOW.
Sometimes I would tell a poignant illustration that I hoped would drive home the importance of making a decision. My philosophy was clear:
There is a God
The Bible is truth
God hates sin
Salvation is through the merit and work of Jesus Christ
There is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain
No one has the promise of tomorrow
Death is certain
Decisions affecting our eternal destiny should never be put off
The invitation was the point in the service where I (God) brought everything together. It was the climax, the point where God showed his mighty power by saving sinners and calling backsliders back to the faith.
Thousands of people responded to altar calls given by me. I was pretty good at it. I knew what to say and how to say it. I could read the emotions of those under the sound of my voice, and with a few well-placed words, get them to walk the aisle. What I called conviction back then is what I now call guilt. The Bible is a world-class book for making people feel guilty. When people feel guilty (under conviction) they are ripe for manipulation.
In one church I pastored for 11 years, we had over 600 public professions of faith. We baptized hundreds of people. Rare was the Sunday when no one came forward during the invitation. (For many years I gave invitations every time we had a service.)
On those rare weeks when no one stepped out for Jesus, I was often quite depressed. I thought, why didn’t anyone come forward? Maybe my sermon was poorly constructed or perhaps God was punishing me because of some unconfessed sin in my life? (In other words God might send someone to hell to get my attention.)
The number of people responding to the invitation, like the number of people attending the church, is a measure that pastors use to judge themselves successes or failures. Church members judge the success or failure of their pastor by whether God is using his preaching to save people and reclaim backsliders. They also judge him based on the numeric growth of the church. In many ways the church is no different from the corporate world, where corporations are judged a success or a failure based on economic output (stock price, revenue increase, increased productivity, bottom line profit).
Every church I ever pastored grew numerically. I was good for business. I knew I had good preaching skills. I knew I had “people” skills and that I was effective in reaching people with the gospel. I expected results. I expected God to work. I expected people to walk the aisle and do business with God. My modality in the church was similar to the manner in which I conducted myself in the business world. Over the years, I managed restaurants for Arthur Teachers, Long John Silvers, and Charley’s Steakery (along with a number of other management level jobs). As a general manager, I was driven to succeed. Success was measured by net profit (a secular version of souls saved and church attendance growth).
Toward the latter third of my time in the ministry, I came to see that the altar call was a tool used by pastors to manipulate emotions and give the illusion that God’s power was on them and that God was using them. I have no doubt that many pastors believe their own hype, I know I did. I came to see myself as a man used greatly by God. The proof was in the numbers.
When I stopped giving altar calls many people responded negatively and a few people even left the church. In their minds, an old-fashioned, bible-believing church has altar calls. People should have an opportunity to respond to the sermon. People should have an opportunity to respond to the Holy Ghost’s leading. One former friend , a pastor, told me that he would never attend a church that didn’t give an altar call. Never mind that there is not one instance of an altar call in the Bible. Never mind that the history of the altar call can be traced back to Pelagian Charles Finney. In his mind, a good church was a church that gave altar calls. A church without altar calls was a liberal church that didn’t love souls.
Billy Graham, 1951, when he was still Associated with the Sword of the Lord
In the 1960s, evangelists such as Billy Graham popularized the altar call and brought it to the TV screen. Many of us remember seeing a Billy Graham Crusade on network TV. Who can forget the altar call, hundreds of people pouring out of the aisles making their way down to the front. What most people did not know is that MANY of the people responding to the invitation were actually Christian altar workers. They helped “prime the pump” with their movement forward, encouraging others to do the same. If you take the first step God will help you take the rest….
When we are part of a group, there is pressure to conform to the group standard. This dynamic is quite evident in church. Individuality is discouraged. Dissent is frowned upon. I see the same problem in the secular world. Most human beings don’t want to stand out from the crowd so they tend to embrace whatever the group standard is.
Personally, I try to fight such conformity. I will gladly sing the National Anthem and recite most of the Pledge of Allegiance, but I’ll be damned if I will bow my head and take off my hat in an act of worship as some knucklehead prays for God to bless the race car drivers or a singer sings God bless America during the 7th inning stretch at a baseball game. That said, I have no doubt I succumb to the group standard more than I care to admit.
Group conformity is not necessarily bad, but we must be careful we do not surrender our ability to reason and think for ourselves. The pressure to conform to a group standard in church often sucks the life, vitality, and joy from a person’s life. When the pastor gives an invitation and scores of people respond, the pressure to do likewise is very strong. Being right with God=walking the aisle. Standing in the pew and not walking the aisle=Not right with God.
Many years ago I attended a Sword of the Lord Conference in the Canton, Ohio area. Curtis Hutson was one of the main speakers. He preached onthe family, on fatherhood. At the close of his sermon he gave an altar call that basically said “if you want to be a better father, you need to come to the altar and profess your willingness to do so” Hundreds and hundreds of men responded. I didn’t. I thought Hutson was being quite manipulative, so I refused to walk the aisle. Of course, I stood out like a sore thumb. People thought, I am sure, Either that guy thinks he is a better Christian than the rest of us or he refuses to get right with God. Who doesn’t want to be a better father? Never mind that one prayer at an altar does not a good father make.
Pastors well-schooled in their craft and blessed with the ability to effectively communicate, can, if they are not careful, manipulate people. The altar call is just one of many tools that can be used for manipulation. What pastors call God is actually the pastor and his well-honed communication skills manipulating those listening to the sermon.
A public church service can be a dangerous place. Parents, with nary a thought, allow their children to be influenced by men expert in mental and emotional manipulation. Even adults, especially those who have “sin” problems in their lives, are susceptible to manipulation. Adults enter the church building burdened with the cares of life, and the pastor, with his well-chosen words, convinces them to respond to an altar call. Jesus is the answer! Hooked on drugs or booze? Jesus will set you free. Family a mess, headed for divorce court? Jesus will make things right. Come, don’t delay. And people, with lives burdened down by problems and adversity, rush to the altar thinking Jesus will fix everything for them. He doesn’t, and they are worse off than they were before. Why are they worse off? Because they will likely think or be told by the pastor that the lack of change is their fault. They didn’t pray hard enough, or perhaps they had some secret sin they are holding on to. God never gets the blame for failing to do what the pastor said he would do. It is ALWAYS the sinners fault, not God’s.
Let me ask you a question. Every head bowed, every eye closed.
Are you saved? Do you remember a definite time and place in your life where you repented of your sins and accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
If not, raise your hand. No one is looking. This is just between you and God. Raise your hand, I want to pray for you.
I see that hand. And that one. Thank you Ma’am. Thank you Sir.
Lord you see the hands that were raised. Save them Lord. In Jesus name, amen.
In a moment we are going to sing Just as I Am.
If you raised your hand, I want you to step out from your pew and come to the front. Someone will meet you and will share with you what the Bible says about being saved.
That’s right, keep coming.
Are there others?
Even if you didn’t raise your hand, is there something you need to confess to God?
Do it now.
Dinner will wait.
Your soul is worth more than all the money in the world.
We are going to sing the last verse one more time. That’s it. Don’t neglect so great a salvation.
God doesn’t promise to always strive with you. One day his Spirit may no longer call and it will be too late for you…
The two tools most often used by Evangelical preachers to keep people in the pews are:
The threat of God’s judgment
The threat of hell
As with Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Evangelical preachers warn parishioners of the judgment to come and the hell that awaits anyone who does not repent of their sins and become a follower of Jesus.
…The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment…
While few Evangelical preachers can turn a word and speak as eloquently as Edwards, their message is still the same: judgment and hell awaits those who do not repent of their sins and follow after Jesus.
Preachers often use what I call the carrot and stick approach. Every person has a choice to make about where they spend eternity. While Calvinists and Arminians argue endlessly over whether we really are free to choose, saving faith does require an act of volition. Every person must choose between heaven and hell. Become a follower of Jesus and heaven, the carrot awaits when you die. Reject Jesus, his salvific work on the cross and his death-defying resurrection from the dead, then hell, the stick, awaits you when you die.
Evangelical preachers impress on those under the sound of their voice that it is important to make a decision for Christ NOW! The Bible says in the last part of II Corinthians 6:2:
…behold now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation.
According to Evangelical preachers, none of us has the promise of tomorrow. Proverbs 27:1 states:
Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.
Evangelical preachers are like Larry the Cable Guy. Git ‘er Done! Today, right now, don’t delay.
Some preachers spice up their sermons with illustrations of people who died suddenly or who died after hearing and rejecting the preacher’s warning about God’s judgment and hell. These stories, true or not, are meant to elicit an immediate response. When I was a preacher, my goal was to press every person who heard my sermon to make a decision. I was of the opinion that there was no such thing as a neutral position. Once a person heard the gospel, heard my sermon, they had a choice to make. Heaven or hell, which will it be?
A regular reader of this blog sent me a Franklin Graham quote that I think will help illustrate what I am trying to say in this post:
“Death is serious, eternal business. Once our physical hearts beat for the last time, we will instantly find ourselves either in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in all His splendor, or in the pit of Hell away from His presence.”
There’s the carrot and the stick. Heaven or hell; choose now while your heart is still beating. The moment your heart stops beating, your eternal destiny is settled.
Think for a moment about what Graham said here about the heart stopping. So, if a person’s heart stops, his eternal destiny is settled? What if his heart is restarted using a defibrillator? Does this mean his eternal destiny is not really settled and he gets another chance to decide, heaven or hell? For those people who have heart transplants, does that mean that they need to decide again?
The bigger problem with Graham’s statement is that it is bad theology. According to orthodox Christian theology, when people die, they do not go to heaven or hell. Instead, they go to the grave and will remain there until the resurrection of the dead. Grandma is not up in Heaven running around, nor is she peering over the portals of Heaven watching her grandchildren play. Neither is Christopher Hitchens in hell, being tormented day and night for daring to mock the thrice holy God. They are dead, lying in the grave, awaiting the second coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.
After the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment will take place and every person will be sent to his or her eternal destiny. And even here, many Evangelical preachers, including Graham, get it wrong. Christians will not spend eternity in Heaven. Instead, they will spend it in the kingdom of God. Hitchens and the rest of us reprobates? We will not spend eternity in hell. Instead we will spend it in the lake of fire.
And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
And here an even more interesting point. Isn’t our eternal destiny is settled by repenting of our sins and following after Jesus? These texts state that everyone is judged by their works, that it is works that determine whether Grandma, Hitchens, or anyone else goes to heaven or hell.
I wish Evangelical preachers would get together and figure out exactly where it is we are all going when we die. I wish they would determine if it is really up to me to decide? With so much confusion and lack of theological precision, how is a poor, lost atheist such as I am, supposed to determine in what hotel to make my final reservation?
The purpose of this post is to show how confusing and contradictory Evangelical preachers and their theology can be. If they are not precise and clear, can mere untrained, unwashed Philistines such as we are have any hope of finding THE Way, Truth, and Life?
What would Evangelical Christianity be without guilt?
Guilt, despite what preachers say, is the engine that powers Evangelicalism.
Often preachers will try to hide guilt by giving it other names like conviction. But no matter how they try to hide it, guilt plays a prominent part in the day-to-day lives of those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.
Think about it for a moment. The Bible presents God as a righteous, holy, judging, wrathful, deity. In the Old Testament this God was unapproachable except by a few chosen people. People who got too close wound up dead.
Who can forget the story about the man who put out his hand to steady the ark of the covenant and God rewarded this man by killing him. Or the story about God killing the entire human race save eight people (and yet, Evangelicals say God is pro-life).
From Genesis to Revelation we see a God who gives no quarter to disobedience or sin. He demands worship and expects perfect obeisance. He is a God who not only hates sin but hates those who do it. (the-hate-the-sin-but-love-the-sinner line of thinking is not found in the Bible.) Evangelicals often remind people such as myself that someday every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Bow now or bow later, the thinking goes.
There are hundreds of commands in the Bible, commands that God expects every Christian to obey without question or hesitation. After all, according to the Bible, God himself lives inside every Christian. According to the Bible, the Christian has the mind of Christ. The Bible also says that Christians are to be perfect even as their father in heaven is perfect. Lest one doubt whether God is serious, the writer of First John reminds his fellow Christians that he who sins is of the devil.
The Bible message is clear, obey God lest you fall under his judgment, a judgment that could lead to your death. Put in words that any child can understand: do what God says or he is going to get you. Remember this is a God who killed two people in the book of Acts for lying. This is the same God who brutalized his son on the cross because of what other people did. This is also the same God that will someday savage the earth and its inhabitants and torture in hell for all eternity all those who are not Christians. The book of Revelation reads like Quentin Tarantino movie script. The vengeful God will pour out his wrath upon the earth, killing billions of people and destroying the earth in the process.
It should come as no surprise then that many Evangelicals live with a backbreaking load of guilt. They know what God expects and they fear him, but, in spite of all their hard work, they still can’t measure up to what God expects of them. What deepens their guilt is preachers who say they speak for God, adding more rules and regulations that God demands every Christian obey (also called church standards).
I spent most of my life in the Evangelical church. I desperately wanted to be a good Christian. I felt God had called me into the ministry and I wanted to be the best pastor possible. I was willing to sacrifice everything for God. And so that’s what I did. I sacrificed my family, my health, and my economic well-being for God. I held nothing back and I was willing to die for my God if necessary.
A while back someone made a comment on Facebook about my being an atheist. This person has known me for 37 years. He said that he was shocked that I was an atheist because if anyone was a committed, true blue believer, I was. Most people who knew me in my Christian days would give a similar account of my devotion to God.
As a pastor I gave 100% to the cause. I worked long hours without regard to whether I got paid. Most of the churches I pastored paid a poverty wage, but that didn’t matter to me. I would have gladly worked for free, and, in fact, I did work many weeks and months without receiving a paycheck. It was never about the money. It was all about faithfully serving God and fulfilling his calling on my life. It was all about being obedient to the commands and teachings found in the Bible.
One would think that someone as committed as I was wouldn’t have guilt, but guilt played a prominent part in my life. Striving for perfection quickly reveals how imperfect one is. Sometimes I envied Christians who could take a minimal, carefree approach to God and his commands. Why couldn’t I be nominal just like everyone else? I’m not sure I have an answer for that. All I know is this, I worked for the night is coming when no man can work and the more work I put into my Christian faith the more guilt I had.
I often pondered the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus had given his all on the cross for me. Shouldn’t I give my all to him? I took seriously the command to walk in the steps of Jesus. I tried to pattern my life after the example of Jesus and the apostles. I wanted to be found busy working for the advancement of God’s kingdom with Jesus came back to earth.
I prayed in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night, and numerous times throughout the day, yet I feared I was not praying enough. After all, the Bible commands us to pray without ceasing. No matter how many people I witnessed to, there were always more people I needed to evangelize. There never seemed to be an end of souls that needed saving. How dare I spend one moment taking care of my own personal needs while countless souls were hanging by a bare thread over the pit of hell. I had no time for talk of heaven or eternal reward. There was too much to do.
I know some readers of this blog will read this post and say, no wonder you were guilty all the time. Look at how motivated and driven you were. Yes, this is true, but I ask you, where do I find in the Bible the laid-back, nominal, easy-come-easy-go, Christian life? While certainly such a life would have lessened the amount of guilt I had, how could I live such a life knowing what I did about the teachings and commands of the Bible?
Look at the examples given for us in the Bible of people who were devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Show me the nominal Christian. In every instance nominal Christianity is roundly condemned. God expects — dare I say demands — 100% devotion and anything less than that is treason against God.
So, for many years I lived with guilt almost every day. I felt guilty when I stopped to enjoy life. I felt guilty when I stopped to attend to my personal wants and desires. I felt guilty when I spent money that could have gone to the church or to missionaries. Why could I not be like the Apostle Paul? Or why could I not be like Jesus himself?
Of course the real problem was that I was a human being. A life of selfless devotion to God was an impossibility. Now that I’ve left the ministry and left the Christian faith, my problem with guilt still remains. I’m no longer guilty over my lack of devotion and I’m certainly not guilty over committing what the Bible calls sin, but I do lament the amount of time, money, and effort I gave in devotion to a God who does not exist. As the old gospel song goes, wasted years, oh how foolish.
I also regret leading people into the same kind of life. I regret causing parishioners to feel guilty over not measuring up to the commands found in the Bible. As I have often said, churches would be empty if it weren’t for guilt and guilt’s twin sister fear.
Perhaps my penance is this blog. I am sure there are many people who read this blog who know exactly what I’m talking about. Atheism and a humanist worldview have allowed me, for the most part — aside from what I have mentioned above — to live a life free of guilt (and fear). I no longer have to fear or feel guilty over not keeping God’s commands. No longer are my actions checked against God’s sin list. My actions on any given day are good or bad and when I do bad things I need to make things right if I can and try not to do them again. There is no need for me to be threatened with hell or promised heaven. All I want to do is be a good human being and be at peace with others. If my actions fail this standard then I need to do better.
How about you? Do you still struggle with guilt post-Jesus? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.